The Oculus Rift Might Teach Us How To Be Better People
It’s official—us, plebeians, will finally be able to get our grubby little hands on the hotly-anticipated virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift. Yesterday, December 14th, the company announced that the headset will be available for $350 early next year, and that people will be able to pre-order them sometime in the next two weeks. Gamers all over the world are peeing their pants in excitement. But even if you’re not a total geek, this is really good news—trust.
While gaming might seem to be the headset’s primary function, its potential is seemingly boundless. It’s been reported that, among other things, it can be used to control robots on mars, treat veterans with PTSD, and give doctors a new understanding of the complex inner workings of the human body. But, the coolest thing virtual reality might give us, and also probably the least discussed, is the ability to empathize more strongly with other people, and how to use this new understanding to become better human beings.
Last year, BeAnotherLab, a group of students at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, decided to play with these possibilities. In their on-going research project “The Machine to Be Another,” the team decided to see what it would be like if two people used Rift to effectively swap bodies.
Two people, a man and a woman, are each given a headset, with a point-of-view camera attached to each one. The feed from the camera on each person’s head is streamed to the goggles of the other. Each person is then to mimic the movements of the other, so that what the person does and what they see the other person doing are in sync, creating the illusion of inhabiting the other’s body.
“The Machine to Be Another” is just one in a series of similar experiments exploring the concept of body swapping, and what University of Barcelona professor Mel Slater calls “body semantics”—what it means to inhabit a particular kind of body, and how blurred the boundaries between “I” and “us” really are.
A team of researchers at the University of Barcelona wanted to go deeper into this theory’s implications. In 2013, they conducted an experiment to explore whether or not using virtual reality can diminish subconscious racial biases in people. The experiment went a little like this: The team of researchers recruited 60 light-skinned Spanish women to take a test that would record their implicit racial biases. The women then, over the course of three days, used virtual reality to embody either a white, black or purple-skinned avatar.
At the end of the experiments, they took the racial bias test again. The results? The women who embodied the black avatar—and only those—showed, according to the test, a marked decrease in their implicit racial biases.
This is really promising news, but don’t get too excited—the effect demonstrated by these results is a double-edged sword. Another study at the University showed that embodying a dark-skinned avatar and carrying out a job interview—in which the player must call upon their immediate characterizations of someone of a different race—can actually solidify or even intensify racial prejudices. “This opens up the possibility that if one was embodying a black avatar in a first person shooter or GTA [Grand Theft Auto] style game,” says professor Harry Farmer in an interview with io9, “This could increase negative associations towards black people by enhancing the stereotype of black people as violent.”
But, if anything definitive can be learned from these sometimes-conflicting experiments, it’s that a person’s empathy is malleable. While some virtual reality activities may seem to enhance prejudice in people, it follows that the same prejudices can be reduced through the right practices. The responsibility, then, falls upon game developers and creators of virtual realities to be conscious of the power they have to shape how we perceive each other, and to build the worlds that will instill greater empathy and understanding in those who inhabit them.
Images via BeAnotherLab, TweakTown and io9